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The Cycle of a Tantrum

Most people have witnessed or experienced a tantrum from a child. Everything is going well until the child gets triggered by something, anything, and it escalates from there.

Caregivers often have their own way with dealing with a child when they are throwing a tantrum, but it may not always be effective in helping the child through it. This blog is hopefully going to give caregivers some tools that can be utilized when they sense a tantrum coming on, to help de-escalate the situation.

A typical tantrum or crisis to a child has 7 steps. The first step is being calm. Everyone has a calm phase. You may notice it in a child when they are responding positively to directives, or playing happily among other things. The second step is a trigger. ANYTHING can become one and there is not always a good way to see it coming. Step three is agitation where the intensity of the situation starts to increase. If nothing is done, the child will likely head into step four, acceleration. A child has a hard time regulating themselves and their emotions. They need someone they trust to help them through this, and if ignored the child will go straight into step five: the peak. At this point, the child has shut down, they are acting out, and are not able to listen to directives. This stage usually lasts about 3-7 minutes. Following the peak, step six is de-escalation. Even when left alone, the child will begin to calm down because they will have exhausted themselves during the tantrum. The final step is recovery. This only happens when a child is allowed to de-escalate completely.

When a child experiences this cycle, they lose access to their cortex. The cortex provides a person with rationality and reasoning. It is no wonder that a child throws a tantrum when they are unable to access this portion of their brain. Some things that may trigger a child may seem very silly to a caregiver, but when the child cannot think rationally, things escalate quickly. and before you know it, your child is at their peak.

A way to intervene appropriately takes action to each of the seven steps outlined previously. When the child is calm, a caregiver should be proactive and use this time to coach and teach the child about this feeling and what it is like to be calm. Inevitable, a child will experience a trigger so when they begin to get agitated, provide the child with a lot of support. It is important to be in a close proximity to the child during this time, and would be helpful to praise the child for staying calm even though they are not happy right now. If the child accelerates, the caregiver can give verbal directives to help problem solve. The child may not be thinking clearly at this time so giving the child concrete choices would be beneficial. If the child continues on in the cycle, they will next hit the peak of the tantrum. During this time, it is important to only focus on the child’s safety. There is no discussion to be had including rewards or punishment to try to get the child to stop. Remember: this phase generally lasts from 3-7 minutes so let the child have that time. After the 3-7 minute tantrum, the de-escalation will ensue. It would be helpful for the child if the caregiver were to narrate this process of coming back to regulation through cues, praise, and support. An example of this would be, “I can see your breathing is slowing down” and “You are not shaking anymore”. Finally, the child will reach the recovery stage. This is the ideal time for remediation since the child will, once again, be able to access their cortex.

The goal is for tantrums to become less frequent, overcome more quickly, and to be a more positive experience for both the adult and the child, that can be learned from through the guidance of a caregiver.

Carly Cohen, LCSW

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